Paintings of the Industrial Revolution

October 22, 2012
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

I feel the first answer to this (while correct) is somewhat perfunctory, so I'm going to try and expand a bit.

The Industrial Revolution started around 1760 - it is followed by an industrial 'age' (which arguably only ended with the recent beginning of the 'Information Age'). There was a second "revolution" around 1840, with bessemer steel and an industrial zeal picking up momentum.

Obviously, it represents huge social change, it's scary (as change always is), and there are massive political upheavals going on at the same time. Industrial mechanisation represents hope, progress, advancement, possibly making life easier and more exciting. It's also loud, ugly, mechanical, confusing, dangerous and domineering.

(The Iron Rolling Mill, Adolph Menzel)

Factory towns, people who perhaps used to work outdoors all the time on the land, now work in low lit factories, in bad conditions. Cogs in a machine, with no individuality.

It's not surprising then that the art movement to react to it is all about emotion, nostalgic, and focused on the wild beauty of nature, the rugged, remote places, the exotic and free places.


(Caspar David Friedrich - Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog)

Some of it is a kind of escapism from the grey drudgery of mechanical work.

(Fra Hardanger, Hans Gude)

But some aren't afraid to address the Industrial side of life more directly. You can see in Turner's "The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up" the suggestion that ugly, new technology is destroying a nostalgic, beautiful, traditional heritage:

William Blake was deeply concerned about the impact the Industrial Age was having on people's quality of life, their happiness and individuality, and wrote about it in illustrated poems. He wanted to face the issue head on, with scathing directness.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood on the other hand, wanted to take their nostalgia as far back as pre-Renaissance (hence the name). Mediaeval themes, sometimes with a moral twist, maxing out on romantic visions of "the good old days"...

(Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti)

You might think we've strayed a little far from the Industrial Revolution here. You wouldn't be the only one.

Realists wanted to bring things back down to earth. They wanted to show life as it really was. They wanted to give labourers something they could relate to, and fearlessly paint the harsh realities and living/working conditions of the time.

Iron and Coal, William Bell Scott

This is where Menzel's work right at the beginning enters the scene.

John Ruskin was worried that workers were becoming automatons, disconnected from life, community, nature and beauty. He created a school for workmen and labourers to learn to draw, and taught them to see the world in a different way.

(John Ruskin)
The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution
Industrial Revolution
Industrial Revolution
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